Gokarna has not woken up completely when we drive into town early on a Sunday morning. We are on the single main road; a narrow stretch known as ‘Car Street’ after the temple juggernaut, which sits heavy and drowsy like the rest of the village. Its huge wooden wheels are stuck in the mud, waiting for the annual festival when they roll slowly around the town, carrying the image of the deity of Gokarna. Since its a Sunday, most shops are shut, except for the few sluggishly coming to life as the owners crank up the reluctant metal shutters to face another day. A few women are up and about, sweeping the street in front of their houses, before drawing intricate rangoli patterns on the ground. A young priest sits on an abandoned platform in one corner, absorbed in his newspaper, unmindful of the dust his clean yellow robes are picking up.
And the cows, plenty of cows, flipping their long tails as if to keep people from coming too close. In a way, the cows belong right there, given that the name of the town stems from a legend that Lord Shiva, known at the local temple as Mahabaleshwara, emerged from a cow’s ears (go-karna).
In one of the narrow lanes spreading out from the main temple road, we come across Karl painting a picture of Radha and Krishna sitting on a swing. His canvas is the outer wall of the Radhakrishna bookstore, owned by his friends. Karl, from Germany, has been backpacking through India and has already been in Gokarna for several weeks. “It’s a very special place,” he says solemnly, “I don’t have the heart to move on from here.”
Welcome to Gokarna, the new Rishikesh.
Like Rishikesh, and perhaps like Puri, too, Gokarna has a split personality. On one hand, it is a temple town attracting the devout and the faithful. They are here seeking spiritual salvation in this “Kashi of South India”. For them, the sea serves as a receptacle to take quick cleansing dips prior to prayers at the Shiva temple.
On the other hand, Gokarna is also a typical seaside town where beach bums throng, lured by the song of the waves. They too are here on a pilgrimage of sorts, in search of nirvana amid the sun and the sand, and the hipster beach shacks with names like
Namaste and Yoga.
The twain rarely meets. When they do, it is a happy and harmonious mingling.
Although the temples themselves are out of bounds for foreigners, we take a look at the surrounding streets. At breakfast at one of the local eateries with its rickety metal tables and chairs, we find ourselves sitting next to a young Israeli couple and their two small children. All are tucking into idli and upma in a manner that suggests familiarity as much as fondness. Another group of those who have fallen for Gokarna’s languid charm.
By the time we finish breakfast, there is a buzz around the area. Dozens of pilgrims walk purposefully towards the temple, some still wet from their tryst with the sea. More cows appear on the scene, as if summoned by the clanging bells. The shops are all open now; the ones selling shiny idols and laminated images of deities are the most crowded.
Heading on from town, even that early in the morning, Kudle beach is a throng of activity. The shore resonates with the happy shrieks of the young ‘uns frolicking in the water. The patron saint of reckless kids clearly keeps a benevolent eye on them. A raucous volleyball game is in progress, both sides too busy laughing to have a serious match. An army of crabs scurries across the soft sand, leaving intrivate patterns of passage. They are the only ones who seem to be in a hurry to get somewhere.
Further away, young couples and singles sit at the beach shacks, waiting for coffee and toast. From my bench in the shack, I can see a sprinkling of Om tattoos strategically imprinted on bare shoulders and waists. Someone talks of going for a swim, someone else speculates whether it’s time for sunbathing. In all this, there is no sight of a local anywhere; this part of Gokarna seems strictly for the “others”.
Driving up to the next hillock known as Yoga Hill, we stop for stunning views of Om beach, also popular among tourists. The name seems to be the product of an imaginative mind; the rocky beach curves at two points on the shore, creating a Sanskrit ‘Om’. The beach is pristine, the waters glinting a muted silver under the morning sun.
Further ahead lies the promisingly named Half Moon Beach and Paradise Beach, both which can be reached only by a hike or by a short boat ride. Friends who have been there say both are lovelier and quieter versions of the beaches we have left behind.
Looking out at them, I wonder for a minute if this is Gokarna or Goa. But later on that evening, inside the town, with the temple bells pealing in the distance and in the company of cows once again, I know.
It is Gokarna.